I eat my lunch at a place that is the textbook definition of a hole-in-the-wall. Located across the large Mosque, hidden behind a small park of benches and pigeons, and set inconspicuously among shops of electronics and book supplies, the little kitchen thrives. Long lines of Moroccan men – dressed in construction gear or business suits – congregate by the small wooden shelf that serves as a table. Eating is hurried, either taking food to go or standing by the counter for a quick meal. An Arabic-only menu of Moroccan flatbreads and donuts is written above the counter, but the green soup (perhaps of pea and fava bean) has to be asked for by name. The cook and owner of the little booth speaks only darija, so we order primarily by pointing, making inquisitive faces, and engaging all the other hungry buyers in explanations of what the different types of fried dough are, and which one is the most delicious.
A meal for two at the anonymous stand consisting of a steaming bowl of mysterious green soup and fried rghifa flatbread spread with cheese and honey costs approximately 10 dirhams, or a just little over one dollar.
Not to worry, if desiring a splurge, the streets of Morocco are teeming with food. Whether in modern Agdal or the ancient Medina, there is never a shortage of restaurants, cafés, or street vendors offering (sometimes insisting on) a delicious meal or quick snack. Many restaurants offer traditional Moroccan dishes such as tajine – chicken, meat or fish mixed with vegetables cooked in a special ceramic pot – and the delicious Moroccan couscous. The latter is often only found on Fridays, as that is when couscous is traditionally eaten at home with the whole family. Dotted among these are some restaurants catering cuisine from around the world – including Iraqi falafel, Italian pastas and even Sushi. Mexican food is yet to be found.
Leaving the neat and orderly restaurants opens a whole new world of snacks and street food. The old medina in particular is full of a variety of carts and stands with a broad array of food types. Stands grilling all sorts of meat are ubiquitous to the narrow alleys, as are ones frying freshly caught sardines, packing them tightly into pita sandwiches lined with chopped vegetables, eggplants, rice or eggs. Those are my favorite. Lighter snacks include roasted nuts or pumpkin seeds, boiled chickpeas topped with a special blend of spices, and peanuts or sesame glued together with honey to form thick bars of sweetness. Though more common in the south of Morocco, the fruits of prickly pear can also be found. These are cut free from their skin in two quick swipes, exposing the bright red or yellowish-green fruit, which are then promptly impaled on a toothpick and handed to the eager buyer. These delightful goodies (the red variety is sweeter) come at a price of only one dirham each!
A key ingredient in all Moroccan dishes and one that contributes greatly to the famed taste is the freshness of the produce. Men selling oranges or mandarins out the back of pickup trucks picked the same fruit a short while earlier, the leaves and small twigs still attached to the fruit. The fish market is dependant on the waves, and clear days bring in a large catch of sardines and larger fish. All other produce is likewise grown locally, harvested in season, and sold at the market the very same day it was picked. Not only is the food tastier, the connection to the final product is deeper. The boats which caught the sardines can be seen relaxing in the river beyond the souks selling them to the vendors which fry them right in front of my hungry eyes. When the whole process of creating the food is witnessed, it ends up tasting significantly better than anonymous fish packed tightly into a tin can.
To be clear: Mom, I still love your food! Yet there’s something unique about the dishes and produce in Morocco. From their preparation, to their presentation, the whole journey of food here is an incredibly tasty ride.